Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trick or Treat

Emily and Gareth are having a few friends round tonight to watch The Silence of the Lambs and The Blair Witch Project.

I wonder if it's some kind of special occasion?


I'm not often ill, I'm pleased to say, but yesterday I woke up feeling just a little bit queasy.
I didn't like the way it felt - - it felt as though it was only going to get worse.

So, at lightning speed into the shower, (old thinking from when I was pregnant: There is No Way I am Going to Hospital Without a Shower First) checked on Emily who had been ill the previous day but was luckily now a bit better, briefly considered breakfast, thought better of it, thought about the roast lamb with roast potatoes and peas and mint sauce which we had eaten the previous evening - - and kept trying not to think about it - - and it kept coming back into my head - - (and, no, that wasn't the cause of it because Stephen and Gareth ate copious quantities and were fine and even the recovering Emily had some)

and finally I lay down on the sofa and started to feel really, REALLY ill - - -
until at about eleven o'clock I thought oh no, going to be sick - -
and was, a bit, and had a spectacular nose bleed to accompany it (I don't often get nose bleeds either)

and then lay on the sofa and thought I was dying for a couple of hours and was sick again - -

and then went to bed and slept for most of the afternoon - -

and woke up and lay on the sofa and continued to think I was dying --

(and all this time there was nobody in our office, which would normally really worry me, but I was too busy thinking I was dying to care)

and then I went to bed at half past ten for a bit of blissful escape from feeling so terrible - -

and then I woke up this morning BETTER! So much better I wanted to do EVERYTHING and SAVE THE WORLD and CLEAN THE WHOLE HOUSE and JUMP ABOUT SHOUTING HURRAH, I'M BETTER!

But I didn't, I lay on the sofa, mostly, and watched Fear of Fanny, an entertaining play about the amazingly monstrous Fanny Cradock, television cook of my youth. Because I knew that if I did all the things I wanted to do I might be ill again.

So this evening I'm a bit weak and wobbly but STILL BETTER and made spag bol for tea and ate some.

Oh, how easily brought down we are by illness: it's twenty-one years since I felt as ill as I did yesterday (and then I was dying, I just managed not to, thanks largely to a huge blood transfusion). It reminded me how grateful those of us who are generally in good health should be for that simple fact.

In 1984, after losing my first baby and becoming severely anaemic I was ill for three months - didn't eat anything much for the whole time because if I ate I was immediately sick: my skin turned green, I looked incredibly thin, I could hardly move as my muscles were seizing up and I felt really, really terrible with a dreadful kind of sinking feeling.

Yesterday was just a reminder of how lucky I was to survive, and how I should cheer for each day of health I have.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Swimming Pool Recall

As regular readers will know, I have previously lamented Leeds City Council's wanton destruction of Roundhay Park open-air swimming pool.

But they are cleverer than I thought! They have managed to make it into a car park whilst still retaining the essence of the original pool! Look!

People can wander around the car park while thinking of their memories of happy swimming in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, it's along the same lines of Simon Pope's Gallery Space Recall exhibition in Cardiff, where you are invited to walk round an empty art gallery and conjure up your memories of other galleries you have been to.


"On a sunny Sunday morning in Roundhay Park you are invited to wander round the car park and revisit your physical, sensual, spiritual and kinaesthetic memories of the open-air swimming pool experience. To gain the deepest meaning from your visit, please remove your shoes."

There we go, can I have twelve grand from the Arts Council please? And look, we even have little versions for the children:

With all the council's fuss about Health and Safety, you would think they could get a bloody car park right, wouldn't you? It's only been open a short while and already it lacks that - well - flatness, that lackofpotholeness, so crucial to a car park.

Good job Leeds City Council aren't in charge of anything really important, such as educat - - Oh dear.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Oh No She Didn't

A rather gloomy day weatherwise today, what my Grandma would have called "backendish".

Still, we had a good walk on the land around Temple Newsam House in East Leeds. Tudor in origin, it was the birthplace of Lord Darnley, who married Mary Queen of Scots and met a sticky end: I can't quite remember how, but I remember he was played by a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton in the film.

I have been there many times but, strangely, have never noticed this plaque on the wall before.

It says, "The South Wing Was Intirely Rebuilt by Frances Shepheard Viscountess Irwin, Relict of Charles 9th Viscount Irwin in the Year 1796."

In what way precisely, I wonder, did Frances, widow of Charles, rebuild the entire South Wing?

Did she design the whole thing, draw out the plans to scale on a piece of paper, pop down to B and Q for the bricks and spend the next twenty years cementing them in place and the twenty years after that fitting out the inside?

No, I don't believe she did. She turned to her faithful servant Tom and said "Tom! The South Wing's an absolute disgrace! Get me someone to design a new one and get it rebuilt, pronto."

Here's the finished version:

Very nice South Wing, Frances, well done for all your hard work - that's if you did any, which I very much doubt.

Building that huge house must have taken huge efforts from hundreds of people - but hey, they probably couldn't read, most of them, so I hope they never knew that Frances, having paid them a pittance for years no doubt, claimed all the credit for herself. Bloody aristocrats.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Blackbird

And while I’m on the subject of Spooky – and it’s nearly Hallowe’en, after all – let me tell you about the blackbird.

The terraced house in Splott in Cardiff where we lived in the early eighties had two bedrooms – one large, one small. We used the large one and kept our junk in the small one, which had not been used nor decorated for many years. It had an old fireplace, which was boarded up. It had a window, which was painted shut.

We kept the door shut as we didn’t ever use the room – just kept suitcases and boxes and an old bike in there. One day, however, we heard strange noises coming from the room, so we opened the door.

Inside was a blackbird, fluttering about, looking rather confused.

How had it got there? The only possible explanation would seem to be down the chimney – but, as I said, the fireplace, and access to the chimney, was closed off, and had been for years, by the look of it.

After a lot of effort we managed to guide the blackbird out through the bedroom door and finally out through the other bedroom window.

How did it get in there? We never found out. Sometimes, still, over twenty-five years later, if I wake up in the middle of the night, I return to the mystery of the blackbird and keep thinking about it, over and over, with no new ideas at all.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Little Voices

The three geckos and the snake live in Stephen’s computer room. Or, as the geckos and snake might put it, the reptile room is also home to Stephen’s computers.

Just before I go to bed I usually go in there to have a look at the geckos and the snake, which are usually up and about at that time. I check that they have clean water and that their tanks are properly closed.

A week or so ago, as I was doing this, I heard what sounded like voices in the distance, like far-off conversation. Sometimes our neighbours have parties outside, even at this time of the year, so I opened the window to see if that was where the voices were coming from.

No, no sound outside. I closed the window and listened. Definitely voices. I wondered whether Stephen had left the sound from the computer on, though nothing was obvious. Or perhaps there was a radio in the room somewhere, though I couldn’t see one. I thought I would ask Stephen the next day.

But, in the cold light of day, I forgot about it, and for a few nights I checked on the reptiles while Stephen was still in the computer room, and heard no more voices.

Then, the night before last, everyone was in bed except me and I went in to check on the geckos and the snake. As I was giving the snake some clean water, there they were again. Little voices. Like several people chatting in the distance. Just the occasional word could be heard clearly.

So yesterday, when I came across Stephen and Gareth both in the computer room talking Geek to each other, I asked them if they had left a radio on, or anything else that might have voices coming from it.

They assured me they hadn’t, while giving me what may only be described as a Strange Look.

Oh well, I thought, I’ll listen again when I go in the room tonight, and try harder to find out where the voices are coming from.

But - - er - - I didn’t go in later because – how can I put this – I felt suddenly really spooked by the whole thing.

I checked on the animals this morning instead. They were fine.

I might go in later tonight and listen. If I’m feeling brave.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Remember when Mark Thatcher got lost in the desert and his mother, the Milk Snatcher, cried? It was a time of strong emotions. In my case happiness, mostly, leading to loud bursts of laughter and just a little bit of loud cheering.

Oh no, I’m not proud of it, and of course I didn’t want the young rogue – now the old rogue, and I don’t mean that in a loveable sense – to die: but after all those Thatcherite market-forces, starve-them-into-submission, no-such-thing-as-society, entirely compassion-free pronouncements it was just a little bit pleasing to witness her tears. And anyway, he turned up, and has led a blameless life of goodwill to all men ever since.

(The panto season is nearly upon us and I invite you all to join in a loud chorus of

I have never been lost in the desert and one reason is because I have never been to the desert. I have, however, been to Oldham, and I have been lost there. Twice. The first time was a couple of years ago. The second time was today.

The only other time I have been lost while driving was in Liverpool where I pulled up in a garage on one of Liverpool’s lovely wide roads. Within thirty seconds half a dozen cheery Scousers were getting out their road maps and directing me to the M62. The whole event was rather fun and I went from lost to found very quickly.

It’s not like that in Oldham. The first time I was trying to find a school, where one of our actors was in a play. I had looked at the map very carefully, but they had chosen that week to change a vital road junction and I ended up - - well, somewhere, I never did find out where, but when the time for the play to start and then to finish had passed I found the M62 and ended up at home with a nice cup of tea.

Today I was trying to get to New Moston to visit my cousin, but Oldham somehow got in the way. Then it became Saddleworth, where the air is, I expect, still blue from my swearing, though Emily was remarkably calm. Still, I’ve never been to Saddleworth and the pub there looked rather good. Back to Oldham and after a trip round it, through it and finally out of it I finally reached my destination only an hour and a half late and only having done an extra twenty-six miles.

But please bear in mind that these are the only times I have ever got lost. Every other time, I have looked at the map and then set off and driven to my destination.

So it’s Oldham, not me, that is the problem. Obviously.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sailing Ships and the King's New Clothes

When I lived in Cardiff years ago I knew Chapter Arts Centre quite well, so I listened carefully when I heard it mentioned on the radio this lunchtime in the middle of Jeremy Vine (and I don't even LIKE the programme, I just switched on the car radio and there it was, Radio 2).

There's a new exhibition at Chapter Arts Centre by a chap called Simon Pope, called Gallery Space Recall.

And it is this. There is an empty gallery. The visitor walks through it and is invited to remember walking through other galleries - ones that contained paintings, perhaps, or maybe sculpture. And that's it. Though Simon Pope puts it more eloquently than I ever could:

"Simon Pope invites you to recall, from memory, a walk through a gallery space, and explore the spatial, social and professional relations contained within it. you are asked to summon-up these remote spaces - through memory, body, speech and movement – so that they exist at two locations simultaneously, both here and there."

The problem is - and this is my humble opinion, though I happen to be right - it's a load of pretentious bollocks, and, as Jeremy Vine pointed out - though rather more politely - it is bollocks that has been funded by the Arts Council to the tune of twelve grand.

It's the King's New Clothes: it's an insubstantial nothing. To me, the saddest thing about it is that it fuels prejudice of the "oh I don't like all that modern art rubbish" kind. It just gives evidence to those who believe that genuine art has to be an oil painting of a sailing ship upon a turquoise ocean.

Don't go to see Gallery Space Recall: go to see this exhibition instead: it will be far more interesting, because - amongst many other reasons - it will have been created by people with passion. And I don't believe - cannot believe - that Simon Pope has a passion for his empty gallery. Without passion, how can there be art?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Cool, man

They're still doing loads of building work to make my local Sainsbury's bigger and more profitable. (Yes, very dull first sentence, it would never get me anywhere in GCSE English Language, but please bear with me.)

Now they're trying to make it cool as well, so it's surrounded by notices such as this one:

"Just off to the supermarket, dear"

"Are you going to Sainsbury's? Oh, how exciting, they sell loads of fab stuff there you know."

Supermarkets are not cool. They are, by their very nature, boring. And also, by their very nature, designed to make a few people very very rich. And rip us all off with their dreary reward card schemes which - we all know - are only there so they can compile lots of data about us. And they probably - and we don't like to think about this too much - exploit lots of people who make the products that they sell.

Have you ever found a supermarket where the Fair Trade coffee wasn't on the top shelf about three feet above eye level? Have you ever found a supermarket where the Nestle products weren't exactly at eye level, wherever your eye level might be? Certainly that's what happens in this Sainsbury's.

No, we shop in supermarkets because it's easier and cheaper for us to do so than to shop almost anywhere else. We may care about the things they get up to, but not quite enough, it seems, to stop us shopping there.

Supermarkets are not cool, however, and never will be, so they should stop trying to persuade us that they are. Do they think we're stupid? - - - Well, yes, actually.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Emily has backache from time to time. This is partly because she’s the long thin type and they tend to be prone to backache, and partly because she’s had to carry about eight tons of school books most days of her life since she was eleven.

In classrooms in the Olden Days when I was at school there were wooden objects called desks. In form period first thing, you sorted out the books you needed and put them in your brown leather satchel, and left the rest in your desk in your form room. In the afternoon you did the same. So, although you had to carry your satchel about, it was never too heavy.

Just occasionally there was a big hoohah when something went missing from a desk, such as a geography book or a packet of Polos: there was rarely anything more exciting to steal because nothing more exciting had been invented. No Walkmans, no iPods, not even a digital watch. Stealing a slide rule just didn’t give the same buzz.

The thief was generally tracked down and caught and, after a quick show trial, formally beheaded out on the tennis courts. That stopped them, oh yes.

After desks came lockers, and these were in general use when I was teaching in the eighties. These were a bit more of a pain because their keys were always getting lost and the occasional locker inspections showed that lockers were usually found to contain cannabis and whisky as well as school books: but even so, they did mean that the teenagers didn’t have to carry everything about with them. Once teachers got wise to the ever-present “Ooh, Miss, I’ve left me book in me locker, can I go and get it Miss?” then lockers were in general a Good Thing and there were many happy teachers who had confiscated the whisky and the cannabis.

When Emily started secondary school it was a split-site school with neither desks nor lockers. Bent double under their huge piles of books, the children – especially slightly-built ones like Emily - tottered from one site to the next. Her bag was often so heavy that I could barely lift it. But never mind, the school was about to be rebuilt and surely then they would have somewhere to keep their books?

No. No lockers at all in the new building because it was “too expensive” to provide them for all the students, apparently, so nobody got them.

From time to time there is a big fuss in the newspapers about how thousands and thousands of working days are lost every year because of back pain.

I wonder how the cost of the lost working days plus the cost to the NHS of treatment for back pain compares with the cost of providing lockers in schools?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Ydch'yn hoffi coffi?

Welsh, look you, (nb I have never heard anyone from Wales say "look you", have you?)

Anyway, it means “Would you like some coffee?”

And in my case, I almost always would. There are two ways I would like it:

a) with milk


b) without milk, also known as “black”.

In the Olden Days in England you knew where you were with coffee. On a train it would be in a nasty plastic cup and it would be lukewarm and taste of crushed acorns. In a café it would be in a white china cup and it would be lukewarm and taste of crushed acorns. Either way it would come with the milk already added. Black coffee was seen as a suspiciously Gallic import.

But now things have gone to the other extreme.

A short digression: Taking Emily to meet Gareth at Leeds City Station today, I remembered with extreme displeasure that the station car park is now pay and display. Previously, you paid as you left. Now, as you drive into the car park, you have to guess how long you’re going to be: and of course, in order to know this you need to know when the train you’re meeting is going to arrive. Oh, hollow laughter!

So, are you going to go for a very expensive 50p for twenty minutes or a wholly extortionate £1.80 for forty minutes? Of course, you’re going to go for the forty minutes, aren’t you, just in case the train is late. So, with a much grumbling about the bastards who thought this would be a helpful system, and how things have gone downhill since people who travel on trains stopped being “travellers” and started being “customers” you pay up.

So, I paid my £1.80 and Gareth arrived and he and Emily went off to town, so I decided to go to the station cash machine and have a coffee, just to get my value out of the forty minutes that I’d paid for.

Now back to the coffee. These days it isn’t just white or black: it’s espresso, cappuchino, latte, in three sizes. Small - which is large: medium - which is very large indeed: - and large, which is enormous: enough to douse the whole station should it happen to catch fire.. Also you can have things added like hazelnut and caramel and chicken. (I lied about the chicken but I don’t like the hazelnut or caramel either).

And every cup requires the use of at least three machines: one to give coffee, one to give milk and one to give sound effects. All the assistants get in each other’s way as they queue in turn with jugs and cans and make mystic passes beneath the coffee machine, the milk machine and the machine that goes pssschhhhh.

So by the time the person in front of you has ordered one latte with caramel, small, and one espresso, large, and the espresso has been redone because they did a small one by mistake so it was only large instead of enormous, and the pssschhhh machine has been refilled, and then two cappuccinos one with chocolate sprinkled on the top and one without, and another latte with extra chicken, what size did you say? Ooh, I don’t know I’ll go and ask him he’s over by the bookshop - - -

Well, by the time they’d done all that I had been parked for thirty-seven minutes and I had to go.

Is it me, or is life getting trickier?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

Mornings look good at this time of year, with lots of sunlight slanting through mist. Here's the path to Waterloo Lake in Roundhay Park, Leeds:

Then, only five minutes later the mist cleared, mostly:

The birds are rushing about because I was clutching a carrier bag full of bread.

Another five minutes and there was sunshine. The park looked glorious.

Leeds is a city of about six hundred thousand people, so why I had Roundhay Park almost to myself on a beautiful autumn morning I'm not sure. But I was pretty pleased about it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Not Working for the BBC

While I’m in True Confessions mode, here’s another interview that didn’t go so well.

When I graduated from the University of Leeds I applied to be a sound-effects person for BBC radio, which in those days involved a lot of clicking coconut shells together for horses’ hooves and chopping a cabbage in half for Tudor executions. It sounded not too tricky and quite good fun, and it was the job that Esther Rantzen started out doing - whether that’s a recommendation or not I am uncertain.

I got an interview at the BBC in Sheffield with a Very Formal BBC Man in a Suit. All started reasonably well - - he asked me if the deep sounds we could hear from another studio were short sound waves or long sound waves, and because I’d done Physics O-level I knew the answer: and then he asked me who was the new leader of the new political party called the SDP, and it was David Owen (how strange, the things you remember from the dim mists of time).

Then he asked me if I enjoyed cooking and I said, truthfully, not really but I enjoy baking, and I enjoy feeding people. Then he asked me what was the largest number of people I’d provided a meal for, and I said, truthfully, eight. Then he asked me if I liked knitting and I said I quite liked it, but had only ever knitted one jumper. Then he asked me if I liked sewing, and I said no, I hated it, because sewing lessons at school were really dull. Then he asked me if I was interested in fashion and makeup (why he couldn’t tell the resounding NO from looking at me, I don’t know), and if I liked flower arranging, and if I liked jewellery, and if I had a boyfriend and did I hope to get married one day and if so how many babies was I planning to have?

Now, I’m not the kind of woman who sees sexism round every corner at all, but at this point I felt I should enquire whether he asked identical questions of all the male applicants, or were they just reserved for us women, sorry, wimmin?

He was very taken aback by my question (I could see the words “dungarees” and “lesbian” forming in his mind) and I think that was about the end of the interview.

And although it was not a man-specific job at all, requiring neither a lot of physical strength - I was perfectly strong enough to hold the coconut shells - nor even a lot of technical ability, I later found out how many trainees the BBC took for that job in that year.

They took two hundred men. And two women, one of whom wasn’t me. And neither was the other.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

On Not Going to Birmingham

I’m only ever free when I don’t care what happens – most of the time I do care and my utterances and actions are carefully controlled by a constant sense of “what result do you want?” Some people seem able to say and do what they like and not care about the consequences, but I’m not one of them.

When I had my interview at Birmingham University, I very quickly didn’t care. It was pouring with rain, my train was late and I hated the look of the campus. Still, by dint of running like mad I managed to arrive just a couple of minutes late for my interview at 12.15pm.

The interview was in some kind of prefabricated hut. My interview was the last one before lunch and the man who was supposed to interview me was just locking the door and departing as I arrived: he’d clearly decided I wasn’t coming.

Dripping wet, I explained who I was. He didn’t like the look of me, I could tell. I didn’t like the look of him either.

He started the interview in a very lackadaisical manner and didn’t seem very interested in anything I had to say. After a few minutes I thought I probably didn’t want to go to Birmingham University and after a few minutes more I was certain.

Then he decided to ask me a question.

“So, you’re studying Sean O’Casey and Shakespeare for A-level, I see. Can you tell me what they had in common?”

Well, I could have gone down the powerful-writing-lots-of-real-characters route, but I thought, on balance, I wouldn’t bother.

“They both wrote plays.”

In the afternoon at Birmingham they announced, after showing us round, that we now had to write an essay. But, they explained, they were not allowed to give us an exam. This was not an exam, oh no. If we did well in it, it would only benefit us.

So, up pops Smartarse Daphne, well past caring now.

“So, if we do well, it will benefit us and help Birmingham to offer us a place?”

Yes, that’s right.

“What if we do badly?”


“Well, if we do badly, then Birmingham won’t offer us a place, will they?”

Err - - - no.

“So can you explain how this essay is different from an exam?”

Errrrr - - - - -

Well, he couldn’t and didn’t. And I wrote a really rubbish essay. And Birmingham didn’t offer me a place. And I've never been there since.

Good result for everyone, I think.

Monday, October 16, 2006

University Challenge

When choosing a university, they told me when I was seventeen, you should choose it by the course, not by the place.

Because I was young and green, I listened. I did English, because I was good at it and there didn't seem much of a way to find out about other things. So I looked through all the courses, and the ones I liked best were at: Oxford, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.

I didn't get in to Oxford, partly because I wouldn't apply to a single-sex college after lots of years at a single-sex school and partly because I'm not clever enough.

However, all the others offered me a place apart from Birmingham - I will tell you about my Birmingham interview another time as it is quite an entertaining story.

So now I had a choice of : Big City: or Big City: or Big City. And I don't really like big cities. So I reckoned that I might as well stick to the one I knew, and I went to Leeds. Where I found that the course was not at all as advertised and I found most of it monumentally dull.

And I found the building itself hideously ugly and thoroughly depressing and here it is today:

Biochemistry and Microbiology it is now, and the School of English is somewhere else. It was only ever there temporarily and the sign in my day read English Genetics which was a bit confusing. Temporary, perhaps - but temporary for the whole time I was there. It was hideous inside too, and there was none of that greenery which they have put there in a brave but sadly vain attempt to make it less vile.

In contrast, here is the Archaeology Department at York University, which is one of the places that Emily is applying to:

Although this photo was taken on a camera phone and isn't brilliant quality, we can still see that it's a beautiful, historic building.

I think the people who advised me were wrong. Naturally the course is important, but if you are someone who cares how things look, then so is the place where you're studying. I felt gloomy every time I looked at that building in the grim Maths Court. I hope Emily will choose a place that cheers her up every time she sees it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Have You Got Your Coat On?

Like every mother before me and all those who will come after, I waste a lot of time in fruitless discussion of outer garments.

“Emily, it’s freezing out there! Have you got your coat on?”

“No, Mum. Byeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” and the door closes and off she goes.

“Emily, are you taking a jumper to school? There’s frost on the ground.”

“No, Mum. Byeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” and the door closes and off she goes.

“”Emily, have you got your waterproof? Because it’s snowing and there are penguins on the lawn.”

“No, Mum. Byeeeeeeeeeeeee!” and the door closes - - - -

So my delight can only be imagined when Emily asked for some money to go to town yesterday to buy some warm jumpers for winter. Delight, and astonishment.

Of course she took Gareth with her, presumably as some kind of punishment for any past or future crimes. He has but a slim grasp of female clothes shopping, poor man, and it was with some surprise that he related to me what happened.

“Look, Gareth. Trousers!”

“But we’re not here to look at the trousers. We’re here to buy jumpers.”

“Yes, but I like trousers too. Which do you like? I’m going to try these on.”

“But aren’t you looking for - - ?”

“Scarves over there, look, let’s see. Do you like this one or this one?”

“But we’re not here to buy scarves, we’re here to buy jumpers.”

“Yes, but if I was going to buy a scarf, should it be this one or this one?”

“Neither, because we’re here to buy jump - - “

“I think this one, don’t you. Oooh! HATS!”

She came back with a grey V-neck jumper and a red hoodie with stars on and they both really suit her.

Gareth and Emily have both given permission for me to write this anecdote: Gareth because he feels it gives some insight into the dark and strange workings of the female mind, and Emily because she feels it explains the processes that are needed to achieve the correct purchases.

Whether you are male or female, I trust you will find this information useful.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

So familiar and yet so strange

Where were they when I wanted them? As a child I spent hours searching, and there never seemed to be very many, perhaps because the big boys had knocked them down and strung them on strings.

Now they're everywhere suddenly. Conkers: aren't they great?

Each with its shining roundness and its little flat face on the other side.

I didn't really want them to play with: I just enjoyed collecting them and looking at them. Even now the sight of a horse chestnut tree with its leaves beginning to turn orange and gold fills me with joyful expectation.

Others played ferocious games in the playground, with their conkers dipped in vinegar and other old remedies supposed to make the conkers harder and more resilient. You drill a hole in the conker (I know it's tricky, so I must have done it a few times at least) and then put string through, knotting it at the bottom, and throw it at your rival's conker as hard as possible. The last conker to crack wins.

They were excellent classroom currency: a good conker could be swapped for sweets or marbles.

Now they seem to be mostly left on the ground, because playing conkers is far too unsophisticated for modern tastes, and anyway, Health and Safety has either banned conkers from school playgrounds or insisted that the game cannot be played without goggles, a helmet and full body armour.

They're worth a close look though: every one a little miracle and still one of the best things about autumn.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Here be very small dragons

Like many people, we have a cat: but unlike many people, we also have a corn snake and three leopard geckos, which are good-natured little lizards with spots.

We bought the first gecko in March last year: here she is on her first day with us:

She had been in a tank with another gecko which had clearly been eating all the food, so she was very thin. The pet shop told us geckos need to live on their own, which was why we only bought one.

However, then we went to the excellent Silent World aquarium in Tenby, and Ginny told us that in the wild, in the semi-desert where they live in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, they live in little colonies.

So having fattened up our little gecko on a diet of crickets, waxworms and locusts, we decided she needed some companions.

Knowing that Silent World look after their animals very well, when we were in Tenby in July we bought two more geckos that Ginny happened to have, and which were about the same size as ours.

Last weekend Emily and Gareth had a trip to Tenby to collect them, and now they have made themselves at home with our gecko, and they all seem to be getting on very well. Here they are coming out for some food: our original gecko is on the right (thanks to Gareth for the photo). Just so you can get some idea of scale, they are about six inches long.

Geckos are very intelligent compared to the snake, but thick as two short planks when compared to almost anything else. If you look through their heads you can see the light shining through from the other side so they clearly aren't overburdened with brains.

They do, however, know the layout of their environment, so to introduce the new ones we had to rearrange the vivarium so the old one thought it was somewhere entirely new and didn't feel it had to start defending its territory.

Also, at the first sign of trouble they throw off their tails, the idea being that if, say, a bird of prey grabs them, they can run off leaving it clutching the wiggling tail. The tail grows again, but never as well.

Our first gecko is called Tasselhoff (we thought she was a boy) and has never been threatened. She will happily walk onto your hand if you open the vivarium, and is very tame and perfect in every way.

But the two new ones - which have not yet been named officially, but I shall call them Doris and Vera - are a couple of Ugly Sisters in comparison, with stumpy deformed regrown tails. Apparently when they were babies they saw each other's tails, thought they were worms and tried to eat them. Vera has lost some toes as she has had problems shedding her skin in the past.

They may not be cute in that panda kind of way, but they are nevertheless very interesting to keep. This weekend we plan to buy them a bigger tank. We like our geckos, and they can live for fifteen years, so we want them to be happy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Sleepy Water Vole

Who are the best illustraters of children's books? The names that immediately spring to my mind are Ernest Shepherd, who did the illustrations for the Winnie-the-Pooh books amongst others (and a pox on whoever Disneyfied them): the superb Quentin Blake, who writes books as well as illustrates them: the wonderful Edward Ardizzone: and P.B.Hickling, whom you've never heard of.

Neither had I, until I checked the name, but he - or she- drew the very first illustrations that really meant something to me.

They were in an early-nineteen-sixties Ladybird Book called The Sleepy Water Vole, by Noel Barr (no, we haven't heard of him either). Straightforward, clear, prose, and not much plot. The water vole is lazy and goes to sleep. It starts to rain. The river rises and his wife and babies are under threat in their burrow. Mrs Water Vole wakes him up. He rescues the babies. The rain stops. All is well.

I didn't like stories that were too scary and so this was my kind of story.

And I absolutely loved the illustrations, which were mostly English summer countryside in the rain. I marvelled at how convincingly the water was painted - how was that possible?

I wanted to play on that riverbank, like those boys, and I loved the secret life of the water vole and the fact that the boys couldn't see the vole while they climbed on the bank.

And finally, when the rain stopped, I yearned to be one of those swimmers along the river:

Which came first, my love of the English summer countryside and its rivers, or The Sleepy Water Vole? It's difficult now to remember, because I've had this book since I was very young and it was one of the first books I read to myself.

I still think of this book whenever I see a summer river. Hurrah for the never-famous P.B. Hickling.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Artificial Pets

First there were the tamagotchis. Remember them? A little toy the size of a half a crown and a little creature appeared on the screen and had to be fed. After a few days or a couple of weeks it DIED and the child who owned it got very upset and the whole toy had to be hidden away for good. Every house in the country where there were children eight years or so ago has at least one of these wretched things buried in the garden for future anthropologists to wonder about. Why were these little plastic charms so important that they had to be buried?

You could, if you wished, discipline your tamagotchi as well as feed it and there was a button to press for power-crazed children - or their parents - to do just that. One of my husband's colleagues shouted at his tamagotchi repeatedly to see what would happen. And what happened was it left the screen and never came back. Aaaaaah.

You see? I am feeling sorry for a piece of software. Worrying.

Then there were the Furbees or Furbies or however you spell them. These were furry, rather high-tech versions of talking teddy bears, with a light sensor at the front. They talked with a repertoire of phrases which, believe me, could get quite tedious when you spent a fortnight with one in a caravan in France, which we did. Stephen got so fed up of it that he firstly turned it upside down, whereupon it traumatised us all by crying "Worry! Worry!" Then he stuffed it in a drawer from which its little voice could be heard calling pathetically "No light! No light!"

They were capable of learning extra phrases and you could teach them to a certain extent, though not very much.

Here's ours asleep:

And asleep is where it has been for the last few years, on top of a bookshelf, out of the way.

But a couple of days ago, in a burst of Domestic Goddessness, I dusted on top of the bookshelf, forgetting the Furbee was there.

It came to life in the little cloud of dust, yawned, and then SNEEZED.

I left it to resume its slumbers, and after about half an hour of chatter, it did. It's sleeping soundly now. But I'm a little bit scared. From now on, the top of the bookshelf will remain dusty.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Strictly Come Dancing Through Treacle

“Did you see Strictly Come Dancing?” asked the Communist.

They ask me this every week when the series is on, and I never have, because I’m not very interested in it.

But never mind, they’re going to tell me all about it anyway.

“There was that fat comedian. The one with a daughter. She was on television the other night too. I didn’t like him, he smiled at the audience all the time and you shouldn’t do that when you’re dancing. From Liverpool.”

“Jimmy Tarbuck?”

“Yes, but he wasn’t very good. I hope he gets knocked out.next time. And Matt Dawson.”

“Who’s he?” (I have broken the first rule which is Ask No Questions)

“A rugby player. He was really good. And that newsreader. Ginger hair. Nicholas something.”


“Yes, him. And some girl called Emily Brunton. Quite pretty.”

“Emma Bunton? She used to be a Spice Girl.”

“Well what’s she doing this for then? And there were three black men, very good. One of them used to be on Coronation Street, but I don’t watch it. Rubbish. And a group of professional dancers. They were fantastic. And something called North Boys. Or maybe South Boys. Or East Boys. Four young men who all look like each other.”

“Do you mean Westlife?” (I swear to you I am not making this up)

“Yes, that’s it.”

The Communist had done all the talking so far, but now my mother interjected,

“Are they what you call a Boy Band?” This, I felt, was quite something as my parents have never really got as far as the Beatles in the Popular Music knowledge.

“Yes, that’s right.”

The Communist was back in full flight.

“Well where were their instruments? That’s not a band, no instruments. And Bruce Forsyth made a lot of jokes, but they all fell flat.”

It’s like watching television with the screen coated in a thick layer of black treacle. I can hardly wait for next week so I can miss it again and then find out later what happened to Emily Brunton and the North Boys.

The Communist and His Wife: Watching Television So You Don’t Have To.

Thank You for Reading This Meaningless Notice

If I had to choose a favourite supermarket (and the words "favourite" and "supermarket" don't sit easily together in my mind) it would be Sainsbury's I suppose.

Our local Somerfield, however, has by far the friendliest staff, and they don't miss a trick, or let the customers miss one either.

"Ooh no, you've only got one pack of toilet rolls and they're three for the price of two. How about buying another one? Okay? Maisie! MAISIE! GET ANOTHER PACK OF TOILET ROLLS FOR THIS LADY, PLEASE, THE ONES ON SPECIAL OFFER. Now then, are you sure you want these apples? The Braeburns are much better value. I'll get someone to carry it all out for you, you don't want to be pushing this lot up that slope."

But Somerfield is small and doesn't have everything I want, so I can't shop there all the time, entertaining though it is.The Tesco's is brightly-lit and frenetic and I only go there when I have to. The Sainsbury's is relatively civilised, though they're currently doing it up and making it huge. Once in there, that'll be the whole of Saturday gone and most of Sunday too and you'll need a large van parked outside to carry all the clothes and South American woven rugs and Jamie Oliver vegetable choppers that you never meant to buy.

But Sainsbury's is prone to excessive use of Notices.

What's this for? Somewhere at Sainsbury's Head Office, the Person in Charge of Meaningless Notices decided that reading this notice as I queued to leave the car park would give me a warm glow inside. "So long Somerfield, tarra to Tesco," I would think, "Asda's an Asbeen, No to Netto, Waitrose are a waste of space! No, from now on, it's Sainsbury's for me!"

Actually, what I did think was that the Person in Charge of Meaningless Notices had the bright idea that we all needed to see this notice and drew it neatly on a piece of paper and then they went to the Big Boss Person and showed them and they were really excited by it and it was sent to Sainsbury's signwriters (a firm which is rapidly growing rich on making Meaningless Notices) who expressed similar thrillment and set up a production line to make one for every Sainsbury's in the land.

Even better, it says something on the back too, and I bet you can guess what. But perhaps Sainsbury's are correct: perhaps the whole thing's a really good idea. So, for now (and ONLY for now, I'll be ranting again tomorrow about something else)


thank you for reading this blog

Friday, October 06, 2006

Some Laws of the Earth

1) Every morning the Sun rises in the East and every evening it sets in the West
2) The tide comes in and then goes out again, twice a day
3) If you wash any other garments in the machine with a duvet cover they all end up inside it

I have heard believable explanations for nos 1) and 2) but have yet to have any satisfactory explanation for no 3) presented to me.

There's also the fact that if you take the duvet cover out of the washing machine very carefully, the hole where everything else climbed into it has miraculously healed up and you can never find it.

If, however, you simply pull the duvet cover out of the machine quickly, everything else will immediately fall out on the floor (in my case a Victorian cellar floor) including a few delicate items that you never put in there in the first place, and which are now the same colour as the duvet cover but with added Victorian coal dust.

Although I have no direct evidence, I feel this must be a subdivision of Murphy's Law best expressed in this old poem, written by Victorian poet and satirist James Payn in 1844. He was actually satirising some slushy old poem about a gazelle, now fortunately forgotten, but his version is of lasting importance:

I never had a piece of toast
Particularly long and wide
But fell upon the sanded floor
And always on the buttered side.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fair Rate for the Job

The trouble is, when highly skilled people are doing it well, whatever it is, it looks easy.

“HOW much?”

“A hundred pounds an hour or part of an hour.”

“But I only want him to read a few pages.”

“Yes, and because he’s a very good sight-reader, it won’t take long.”

But sometimes they are unconvinced: they get their mate who said they’d do it for a tenner: it takes all morning and the result is terrible.

Then there’s the issue of half days.

“And we need an extra actor in Littlemere-on-the-Marsh for the Fatcat Bank corporate roleplay. That’s out in the countryside ten miles east of Greatmere-on-the-Marsh, you know, fifteen miles north of Manchesterford, but we’ll only need them for the morning. So that’ll be a half day fee plus travel, then?”

“No, I’m afraid we don’t do half days.”

“Why not? We only need him for half a day.”

“Because by the time he’s travelled to Littlemere-on-the-Marsh and done the job, he can’t do anything else to earn money in the afternoon. Because actors aren’t on a salary, they need a full fee for every day they work.”

“Oh, (sighs) well if you insist.”

Then there are television fees. A few actors, it’s true, earn a lot of money from television. But many smaller roles are just one day, for a fee of a few hundred pounds.

“What? Four hundred and fifty pounds, just for one day? I wish I could earn that much!”

But, as an example, that one day’s television is filming on, say, a Wednesday. And the actor was offered a roleplay job where they wanted him on Tuesday and Wednesday that week, but he had to turn it down because of the television job on the Wednesday. And he was also offered four days on a corporate video, stretched over that week and the next week, paying about a thousand pounds, but couldn’t do it because one of those days was – of course! – the Wednesday of the television shoot and he was already under contract for that, and anyway an actor's motto has to be "put television work first" whether he likes it or not, because that is the quickest way to be seen and get more work.

So, in fact, the four hundred and fifty pounds are his wages for a fortnight: and although television companies generally pay pretty quickly, he won’t get the money for ten days or so at the soonest: and that’s only if the agency is like ours, where the money goes straight out to the actor as soon as it’s come in.

But never mind, there’s still that five hundred quid he’s owed from the corporate video he filmed in July – perhaps they’ll pay up soon.

“We’re waiting for the client to pay us,” they told his agent in August.

“Mr. Jones isn’t here at the moment, he’s on holiday, and there’s a pile of cheques to be signed when he gets back,” they told his agent in September.

“The cheque is on the desk, just waiting to be signed,” they told his agent a week ago.

“We didn’t do a cheque run in September,” they told his agent today – in an interesting plot twist - “but it’ll definitely be paid by the end of October.”

There’s a public perception that actors are overpaid, and in one or two cases it may be true. But most actors – and I mean working actors, not the ones who choose to call themselves “unemployed actor” when they never work at all – are forever juggling a lot of small jobs with no job security at all.

And, of course, for “actor” you could equally well substitute “artist” or “musician”.

We get regular phone calls from wannabe actors – they are serious about their craft and terribly committed to it. The only thing is, they just don’t want to give up their job in the bank so is there any acting work they can do at weekends?

It's a big commitment, working in the arts.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tempus Fugit

Here's the secondary school I attended, Roundhay High School for Girls, Leeds, pictured on an Open Day in the year 2000. It's just round the corner from where I live and it then looked very much as it did when I was was there. A worthy, solid building, built in the 1930s.

Brick corridors, parquet floors - it wasn't hard to imagine all the girls who had walked or, disobediently, run along those corridors:

Here's one of the science labs, just as it was in my day (I found some graffiti I wrote on the desk about how dull Physics was - perhaps I wasn't as good a girl as everyone thought):

But I have fond memories of the tennis courts, where Sarah and I played almost every lunchtime and evening the summer we were fourteen:

All those girls: all those teachers: all those days of school, of missing the moon landings because of a test next day, of forgetting my cookery apron (O sin of sins!), of chatting with my friends in assembly (another sin), of treadle sewing machines, of dreary Friday afternoon maths lessons that seemed as though they would never end. Happiest days of my life? No, of course not, though there were some excellent teachers and I had some good friends.

Here's that view of the school and tennis courts, last week:

Gone. They knocked the lot down shortly after I took the photographs, replacing it with a new Roundhay School nearby.

As I said, this field that used to be the school is just round the corner from me. As I round the corner, every time, for a fraction of a second I see the school. Strange how what was such a big part of your life can just disappear.

Oh yes, and we were very lucky in that the school had its own swimming pool. A swimming lesson every week: many swimming galas: family swimming on Sunday mornings.

They've kept that building. It's a canteen now. That's progress for you.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Closest Thing to Crazy

I remember with a certain nostalgia the time when the most irritating television commercials used to be for oil. A drop of oil would be shown seductively flowing down the side of an oil can. “Wow! Oil!” you thought. “Glad they reminded me, we’re clean out of it. I won’t bother watching the rest of this film, I’ll pop out and get some right now!”

I can’t remember when I last saw an advert for oil on television and I don’t know how we’re getting by without them. Presumably cars are grinding to a halt nationally. And where are the cars trying to travel to? Sofa shops, that’s where.

For the oil has been overtaken by sofas: they used to be called settees but settees have gone the way of oil adverts and what we have now are sofa commercials, every ten minutes. Was it last Christmas that we got a snatch of that Katie Melua song in every commercial break? “This is the closest thing to crazy I have ever been” Me too, once I’d seen the bloody advert a couple of hundred times.

Some fairly famous actor whose name I forget trying to look enthusiastic about sofas. Lots of happy-looking slim people lazing on sofas in immaculate, uncluttered living-rooms. (You can’t, of course, have fat people lazing on sofas in commercials any more than you can have spotty people in commercials for chocolate).

And the prices. “Only Six Nine Nine!” they shout at us frenetically. I think they mean Six Hundred and Ninety-Nine Pounds but they think Six Nine Nine sounds cooler, or cheaper, or something. Someone, somewhere, they think, is going “Wow! Only six nine nine! And look how slim that lady is! If I buy one I expect I’ll be slim too!”

How did we manage without all these sofas? I expect in my grandparents’ day they just used to sit on the dog and stare around the sofaless room in hopeless bewilderment.

Anyway, I just want the sofa manufacturers to know that they can stop targeting me. I’ve got my sofa. Willow Green leather it is, very comfortable too, and I’m never going to buy another one. How do I know? Well, the sofa was delivered just as the windows were being replaced and this was Very Lucky Indeed. For the layout of this house is such that, in spite of some careful measuring beforehand – oh all right, some “hmm, I expect we’ll get it in somehow” estimation - the sofa just wouldn’t fit through the door. Well, not through any of the doors – not the back door, not the front door, not the door of the room where it was to live.

So the builder took the old window out, lifted the sofa through the hole, and put the new window in. AND THE SOFA CAN NEVER GO OUT AGAIN. So, I repeat, I have got my sofa. FOR EVER. LEAVE ME ALONE.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The European Capital Letter Mountain

There's a big surplus of capital letters in Europe at the moment. Millions of them, there are, on the loose, wandering the streets, waiting to be caught and given good homes.

I think it was very kind of Wakefield Metropolitan District Council to capture so many Capital Letters and then store them all on This Notice:
The Trouble Is, as soon as you start Writing with Lots of Capital Letters, it makes everything look Very Very Pompous Indeed.

And as soon as I see something that tells me to do something or not to do something using Lots of Capital Letters, it makes me want to Do the Very Opposite of What I'm Told.

So when I read "DO NOT Park in this Car Park if your Vehicle Weighs more than 30 cwt (1524kg)" I immediately had the urge to go and find a huge truck, steal it (having first ensured it weighs more than 30 cwt which as we all know is 1524kg) and PARK IT IN THEIR CAR PARK shouting "A Pox On Your Hundred Pound Fine!"

I didn't: I went to see Hard Times at Wakefield Theatre Royal performed by the excellent Compass Theatre Company instead. It was great - if you get the chance to see it, do (and our actress Sonia Beck was superb in it).

But I give Wakefield Metropolitan District Council fair warning: if the play had been bad I would have left at the interval and gone off hunting for a very big lorry, or as they would call it, a Very Big Lorry. So think on.